It was a performance like every other. Christopher Jackson took the stage. Bright lights placed directly on him. The music cued, he breathed in and proclaimed:
“Yo, if I won the lotto tomorrow well, I know I wouldn’t bother goin’ on no spendin’ spree. I pick a business school and pay the entrance fee! Then maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll stay friends with me!”
Jackson as Benny in the award-winning production of In the Heights continued while Lin-Manuel Miranda, his friend and star/creator of the musical looked at him and responded, “Oh no, here goes Mr. Braggadocio, next thing you know, you’re lying like Pinocchio—”
As the number continues, they both retreated to the bodega set on stage as they took their cue, Lin turned to Jackson and ever so casually mentioned he had an idea for a new musical about the secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton.
“96,000,” they both sung at the top of their lungs as they came back out from the bodega.
Jackson looked befuddled. “Um well, I hope there’s a part for me,” he thought to himself.
It was at that moment, Jackson’s life was about to change once again. Not only did Miranda have a role for him, but it was also as America’s first president and founding father George Washington.
What started out as an idea all those years ago, slowly evolved into Hamilton, one of the greatest modern-day musicals to exist, winning 11 Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Telling the story of America then, told by America now, it featured a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and Broadway. Taking the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, it created a revolutionary moment in Theater—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education.
A musical whose cast were all people of color. It was unheard of, it was groundbreaking, but more importantly, it was inspiring. For Jackson, a Tony-Award nominee, it was life-changing and significantly impacted his life.
The Koalition spoke to Jackson about his role as George Washington, the weight of playing a slave owner, Hamilton coming to Disney+, and more.
Fresh off the success of In the Heights, the Tony award-winning musical about love, life, and culture in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington Heights; in 2014 Jackson once again found himself back in rehearsals working with his two close friends Miranda and director Thomas Kali.
“They positioned me down to the word and down to the note, they positioned me to be able to give my very best self in the performance of the show. That was the main thing that I learned other than just knowing I would run through a brick wall for either one of them. I knew that I could trust what they were asking me to do, had been thought out, had been poured over, I knew that it would give me the best opportunity to the story they wanted me to tell.”
“Most importantly I knew that I could trust Lin and I knew that I could trust Tommy, both of those prophesies took a number of years. By the time we got to Hamilton, it’s like you’re going to work with your best friends but not just because you’re down with each other but also because you know how each other works. It was a great amount of trust that they placed in me, they knew that I would come in knowing what I needed to know and I knew that I would have to come into work every day and I could expect that. If they said in rehearsal and they said ‘we were going to work on this part of the show, I knew that’s exactly what we were going to be doing, there’s not any guesswork.”
Just like the creation of Benny, Jackson has been there from the very beginning with Washington and has played the role in every iteration since. While Jackson was able to help craft the role, it all started with a biography that fully gave the blueprints to build Washington’s and Hamilton’s friendship. Also, being a history buff didn’t hurt when it came to getting into Washington’s mindset.
“The source material being [Ron] Chernow biography, and what’s really unique is that Chernow wrote the Washington biography that really is coupled with the Hamilton biography. It’s hard to know where one ended and the other one began. It’s really interesting. I remember speaking to Ron about it and he was like, ‘it just made sense that I write Washington, that I write these two biographies together.’ It was a real connection between Washington that’s depicted in the Hamilton book. It was almost as if Lin [Manuel Miranda] was writing all the dots connected from the beginning. You get a very good sense of who Washington was to Hamilton and that kind of kept things very consistent from the very beginning through.”
“Washington’s existence in Hamilton is about those moments of inflection where the circumstances are where Washington would intercept with Hamilton and then they would go from that point. Most of Washington’s events in his life happened off stage and so by the time that I got on stage, I knew what was happening before then and so did Hamilton and that just propelled us through those moments. But it was pretty consistent from the beginning. I’m a bit of a history buff anyway, I knew a lot about Washington but on the deep-dive though everything made sense. There was never a moment he was asking Washington that wasn’t factually backed up.”
No stranger to the stage, Jackson has starred in everything from Broadway’s The Lion King as Simba to Holler If Ya Hear Me as Tupac Shakur to even writing music for artists such as LL Cool J, Ne-Yo, Mario, Sean Kingston and more.
While Hamilton has been described as a combination of Common and John Legend who is meant to dispense advice to others, oftentimes he comes across as the only adult in the room who doesn’t lose his cool at Hamilton and others when things go awry.
“He was the adult in the room because he’s depicting that when we watch Hamilton we’re looking at the fact that there were young people doing this. These were all young folk which is the greatest connection to what is happening right now culturally and societally at this moment that has swelled is that that these are young people are holding to account the institutions and the folks who wield the levers of power to say ‘this is not what you said it’s going to be and we want that, we don’t want the status quo.'”
“While Washington is watching all of this, he’s basically trying to keep the wheels from falling off. He’s watching Hamilton run headlong into every possible problem but he’s also trying to foster all of these minds and all of this brilliance that surrounds him. Sometimes being a leader is just directing traffic. I don’t mean to say that he wasn’t involved, obviously, he was but there’s a certain amount that a great manager could put the people in the room and then he knows how to portion the responsibility so he can get the best out of everyone there and we that in the executive time and time again throughout the history of our country.”
While Jackson seems to embody the role of Washington with great ease, it is a role he struggles with even to this day because of the fraught life Washington led. Yes, he was the leader of the free world but he was a leader of a country that didn’t grant freedoms to all people. While slavery is never directly addressed, there aren’t any “Give Us Free” songs, Jackson felt it was important to acknowledge Washington’s role in perpetuating slavery. It’s in this moment that Jackson the actor shines through and the line “who tells your story” is at its most importance.
“I stood on that stage when we were blocking that scene when were sort of setting lights and things like that and I was just lost in that thought; and Tommy in a way that of course only Tommy can do walks up to me, he says ‘are you okay?’ and I say, ‘no, I can’t reconcile this, I don’t know how, I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t have any more words, I don’t know how to reconcile this’ and he asked me, ‘what would Chris do at this moment?’ In one line we say, ‘there’s a monument, the tallest building in Washington, it is the tallest obelisk in the world at that moment’ because we are back into the now. I say, ‘I would disavow it’ and he says, ‘how do you physicalize that’ and I say ‘I step away from it.”
“Living in the veneration of being remembered which was his greatest goal, was to be remembered to posterity, and it’s Chris the actor or it’s Washington but he’s stepping away from that and he’s bowed his head in shame that he was aware of the moral failure and he did nothing to change it in his lifetime.”
Imagine for a moment if Washington wanted to correct a country’s greatest shame. In Hamilton, Jackson gives him the ability to right a terrible wrong and for Jackson, this helped to reconcile portraying a white man in a black man’s skin and while Jackson isn’t able to speak to Washington directly his message is loud and clear.
“Free your slaves, do that, and stop spending money you don’t have. That first and foremost would be my number one request/demand. You cannot build a country based around freedom and be of such disillusion to think that you can own someone else, you just can’t. There’s no honor in it, it’s wrong. It’s just such depths of moral deficiency.”
“It’s so hard to suppose all the nuance and all the things these men were about. You read the readings, which I’ve read a great many of his writings but the duplicity that they just walked around with as it regards slavery is just astounding and it defies any of kinds-it to undercut any aspirational aspects of their fight, of their cause. It’s the worst. They represent the best of the American ideal and the absolute worst.”
“I have spent such a long season with Washington at my side and grappling with the obvious exigencies of career and show and all of the things that are baked into the process and the experience. For me, it was an exercise in understanding, or at least trying to or learning to which is something that I have had to do my whole life.”
“I think it’s has taught me in this world a lot of things can be true all at once and that people who are capable and have a capacity of doing great things in their humanity fall short all the time but it doesn’t color the entire, it doesn’t characterize the entire experience, it doesn’t sum up in any kind of neat way the humanity of memory and of perspective. There are just things that happen that you don’t like and there are just things you do and you try to make really informed choices and you try to judge slowly and then get to it, get to the living. As artists, our success is not always the goal. I think sometimes just carrying on becomes the goal.”
It’s been almost four years since Jackson concluded his run on November 13, 2016, and now fans across the world will get an opportunity to see the show (some for the first time) in all its glory on July 3rd when it streams on Disney+. For Jackson, watching himself as a member of the audience is something he’s excited to experience.
“Being able to look at a film like this and see quite literally for the first time how spectacular each one of the participants of this entire experience was, it’s already an unlikely endeavor to try to put something this large together. And then to see that it was so impactful and successful becomes a very meaningful word, not in the result of the box office or the enthusiasm from other people, but the fact that we actually got to pull this thing together and then find a way to make it work on a daily basis.”
“You’re doing a thing, but you don’t know how impacted you will be. I just kind of shake my head and say, how in the world is this kind of feeling possible from sitting and watching this story that we all told? [But] every, single [person] that participated didn’t know just how incredible they were, ’cause I’m only looking from the side or from behind. I never got to sit from the perspective of the audience member and just lose myself in how the power and in the intelligence and in the expertise that was put on that stage.”
“It just blows my mind. I’m continually overwhelmed when I think about what I got to experience. I can’t wait for it to come out so I can watch it again, because I need to find myself having the same experience that folks who come to see it multiple times if they’ve been able to come and see it, because you just want to be able to touch that thing again and touch the-I don’t know what the word is, but it’s an overwhelming feeling to know that we all agreed and we all came together and did that for such a relatively long period of time and that so many people are gonna get to have that experience again. It’s really, really extraordinary.”